Trailer from “Beats, Rhymes & Life” documentary
Certainly when all of us die hard Tribe fans heard the buzz last year about the release of a documentary celebrating one of the most important hip hop groups of all time, we were pleased. Then came the buzz about the groups “front man” Qtip (a.k.a Kamaal, b.k.a The Abstract), tweeting that he didn’t support the project, which sparked some controversy over director, Michael Rapaport‘s portrayal of dissension within the group (apparently at the time, Rapaport released a trailer to the Sundance Film Festival entitled, “Beats, Rhymes and Fights”).
In a highly circulated MTV News interview with Sway (watch #1-7), the group members Qtip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi (via phone) sit down to clarify the controversy, and their main issues with Rapaport seem to be that he was not keeping an open line of communication about his plans for the film re: focusing on the beef between Qtip and Phife, respecting their feedback on editing, the music not being thoroughly represented, and decisions such as submitting it to Sundance. Then there’s the email (in interview #2) that one of Rapaport’s associates accidentally sent to the group that talks about their plans to secretly cut the group out of decisions and producer credits (yikes!). The culmination of these issues and what Ali calls “deception” while working with Rapaport, seems to have been enough for the whole group to disown the project. However Phife fully supports the film, went to Sundance, and has made media appearances with Rapaport, saying that this is just part of the business and as artists they are used to these shady dealings from working with record labels.
Which leads me to my review of this highly anticipated film, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which I saw a few weeks ago and have been discussing with friends, associates, hip hop heads, and filmmakers since. While I enjoyed the film and would rather live with it in its current form, than have no film at all, I have to say that I too feel that the beef between Phife and Qtip did dominate the plot. A group that is as rich with history, music, culture, experience, and influence for over twenty years, must have had so many themes and directions that the filmmaker could have taken, and while the beef between the two front men is relevant, I don’t think that it needed to take up as much time within the story as it did. Yes, it’s interesting. Yes, it helps tell the story of why our favorite group is no longer together, but apparently there is more to the story than the two emcees not getting along. What about the beef between the group and their record label Jive Records? (who they still are under contract to complete one album with, according to a quick note at the end of the film). Ever since the infamous line in Check The Rhyme, “record company people are shadyyyyyyy, so kids watch your back ’cause I think they smoke crack (I don’t doubt it look at how they act)”, the group has been alluding to their issues with their label, and this is referenced but not explained as a factor in the group’s dissolve, within the film.
“Check The Rhyme” video
I also feel that more light should have been shed on the collaborations, relationships and influences made on other artists. Yes, the film spoke about the Native Tongue family, and how close and in sync they all were, but I recently attended the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival hosted by Qtip this year, and after Busta Rhymes came on stage and performed “Scenario”, he and Qtip had a heartfelt dialogue (see below clip starting at 5:47) where Busta’ thanked him for bringing him into another tax bracket (after putting him on that track), and they both talked about how Busta’ was “this close” to being another member of Tribe…stories like this should have been told (and I’m sure there are plenty more).
Qtip and Busta Rhymes at The Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival 2011
The artists that Rapaport interviewed most, seemed to be newer artists like Pharrell Williams, who weren’t really around the group during their golden years. I would have liked to hear more from De La Soul, and individuals who could give insight into some of the things that have happened creatively as well as socially over the past twenty plus years of Tribe. I also felt that the “I AM MALCOLM X” moment with everyone stating who they were while the credits were rolling, featured so many people (like Large Professor) that we never saw in the film! Certainly some of those interviews could have been chosen over the back and forth with Phife and Qtip? No one can say but those who have the footage, and I don’t take the grueling decision-making process while editing lightly. But if MTV, VH1 and Centric can do a “behind the music” or “unsung” on a group within an hour, and still thoroughly cover the main events within their entire career, a two-hour doc should be able to do the same. Ultimately, the film is not a total bust, and again I would recommend seeing it. Hopefully, the “Tell your own stories” lesson that Qtip and Ali learned, is one that their peers will take note of when being approached by shady culture leeches with a media agenda.